When should a brit be performed? What happens if one performed the brit at the wrong time? Is a mother obligated to ensure that her children get circumcised? When does the father’s obligation end? Why is a child born through C-section not circumcised on Shabbat?

Introduction: the Source and Significance of the Mitzvah

In Parshat Lech Lecha the Torah records:

Abram was ninety-nine years old, and God appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am the Almighty G‑d; walk before Me and be perfect.” . . . G‑d said to Abraham, “And you shall keep My covenant, you and your seed after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall observe between Me and between you and between your seed after you, that every male among you be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be as the sign of a covenant between Me and between you. And at the age of eight days, every male shall be circumcised to you throughout your generations, one that is born in the house or one that is purchased with money, from any foreigner who is not of your seed.”1

Later on, in Parshat Tazria, this commandment is reiterated:

The L‑rd spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male . . . on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”2

A number of reasons have been offered as to why the Torah repeats this command. According to the Talmud, the purpose of this reiteration is only to teach us the law that circumcision on the eighth day overrides the laws of Shabbat.3 Rabbi Meir Abulafia (1170–1244), in his commentary Yad Ramah ad loc, explains that the Torah could simply have written “On the eighth he shall be circumcised.” The previous verse discusses the number of days since birth, so there is no reason to specify that we are discussing the eighth “day.” The fact that this word is nevertheless added is understood by the Talmud as an indication that in all instances a circumcision takes place on the eighth day, even when it falls out on Shabbat.

Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488–1575), in his authoritative Shulchan Aruch (known in English as The Code of Jewish Law), writes that the mitzvah of circumcision “is greater than any of the other positive commandments”.4 In his earlier work Beit Yosef he explains how this conclusion is reached: Karet, the severe punishment of spiritual excision, is generally applicable only to one who transgresses a negative commandment.5 The fact that circumcision is one of only two positive mitzvot that are an exception to this rule is a signal of its unique significance.6 Moreover, in the section of scripture in which Abraham was instructed to circumcise himself and the members of his household, the Torah mentions the word brit, “covenant,” no less than thirteen times. This signifies that circumcision embodies the ultimate covenantal bond between the Jewish people and G‑d. It is therefore referred to as brit milah—the covenant of circumcision.

In a similar vein, the Talmud7 states that the greatness of this commandment is evidenced by the fact that although Abraham observed many mitzvot, he was not considered complete until he circumcised himself, as G‑d said to Abraham, “Walk before Me and you will be perfect, and I shall place My covenant between Me and you.”8 Sefer Hachinuch, the classical 13th-century enumeration of the mitzvot, likewise writes that the human form is completed when the foreskin is removed.9 By contrast, Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, writes that the purpose of this mitzvah is not to compensate for a lack in the way our bodies were formed, but rather to mend a flaw in our character traits. Removing the foreskin, he explains, serves to curtail excess sexual impulses and helps us direct our sexual drive towards the purpose for which it was given to us.10

This covenantal bond between the Jewish people and G‑d also serves as a marker of the Jewish people’s distinction from the other nations of the world. In the words of the Sefer Hachinuch: “Among the roots of this commandment is that G‑d wanted to establish in his nation a sign on their body that separates the individual to be called by His name, to separate them from the other nations in their physical body just like they are separated from them in the nature of their souls.”

What Is the Nature of the Commandment?

There is much discussion as to whether the mitzvah is primarily to remove the foreskin via circumcision, or primarily the outcome of the act, which is that one be circumcised.11 If we understand it the first way, then the fulfillment of the mitzvah is a one-time event. If we understand it the second way, the fulfillment of the mitzvah endures from the moment of circumcision throughout one’s life. The latter approach is supported by the following story, recorded in the Talmud: “[King] David entered the bathhouse and saw himself naked. Said he, “Woe is to me that I stand naked without mitzvot.” But once he remembered the circumcision in his flesh, his mind was soothed.”12 This indicates that King David understood that milah is not merely a one-time act, but rather that it is the perpetual mitzvah to be circumcised.13

On the other hand, as is cogently argued by Rabbi Yosef Babad in his popular 19th-century commentary Minchat Chinuch, the fact that there are so many stipulations as to how and when the act of circumcision should be performed, and who can perform it, indicates that the mitzvah is primarily the act of the circumcision.14 [We will take a closer look at many of these details below.]

One of the practical ramifications of this question relates to the question of circumcising an adult under general anesthesia. If one adopts the approach that the mitzvah is the one-time act of circumcision, then anesthesia may obstruct the necessary kavanah, the conscious “intention” to fulfill the mitzvah through this action. On the other hand, if the mitzvah is primarily the outcome of being circumcised, then general anesthesia would not obstruct the necessary kavanah.15

When Should the Brit Be Performed?

The verses in both Parshat Lech Lecha and Tazria state explicitly that circumcision should take place on the eighth day after the birth of the baby. So if, for example, a baby is born on Sunday before sunset, the brit should take place the next sunday. When a child is born after sunset, but before nightfall, it is considered doubtful as to which day he is born, and we therefore wait another day—in this case, till Monday.16 Every day that a father unnecessarily delays circumcision after the eighth day is considered a transgression of the mitzvah.17 There are situations, however, when it is indeed necessary to delay the brit. We will discuss these below.

Since the Torah specifies that circumcision should be performed “on the eighth day,” the Talmud deduces that it should not be performed at night.18

Although one can perform this mitzvah anytime during the daytime hours, there is a principle that zerizin makdimin lemitzvot, meaning that those who perform mitzvot with alacrity do so at the first available opportunity.19 Accordingly, the Shulchan Aruch rules that one should ideally perform the mitzvah first thing in the morning.20 However, the custom is to delay the brit milah ceremony till after the morning prayer. This delay is based primarily on the principle tadir veshe’eino tadir tadir kodem, meaning that when one has two mitzvot to do, one performs the more common mitzvah before the less common one. Since the morning prayer is said every day, whereas a brit milah occurs only occasionally, the morning prayer takes precedence.21

Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (1530–1612, known as “the Levush” after the title of his halachic work) writes that one can still be considered to have fulfilled the mitzvah in a manner of zerizin makdimin so long as the brit is performed before midday.22 There is a discussion among other authorities as to whether a brit can be postponed past midday in order to enable many more people to attend.23 This argument is supported by another principle, berov am hadrat melech, meaning that a greater crowd brings greater honor to G‑d. Based on this principle, it can be argued that it is preferable to postpone the brit rather than make it earlier in the day with less participants. Nevertheless the general consensus is that even in such a case one should not postpone the brit. This is because it is evident from the Talmud that the principle of zerizin makdimin overrides the principle of berov am.24

What if the Brit Was Performed at the Wrong Time?

In a case where the circumcision was done at the wrong time, either before the eighth day or at night, some early authorities require a procedure called hatafat dam brit, in which a droplet of blood is extracted in fulfillment of the mitzvah of brit milah.25 Other authorities do not require this procedure.26

(It is noteworthy that Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the Rema (1530–1572), suggests that there is no argument, by drawing a distinction between a circumcision that took place early and a circumcision that took place at night. In the former case he considers the brit valid and hatafat dam brit is not necessary, whereas in the latter case he does require hatafat dam brit.27)

According to the Beit Yosef, this dispute hinges upon whether or not a brit performed at the wrong time is considered to be valid post factum (kosher bedi’eved): The authorities who require hatafat dam brit maintain that one has not fulfilled the mitzvah of brit milah, and therefore hatafat dam brit is required. The other authorities maintain that even though the brit milah was performed at the wrong time, it is still kosher bedi’eved.28

In contrast to the Beit Yosef’s view, other authorities argue that all opinions agree that a brit performed at the wrong time is invalid. Nevertheless, some authorities will still maintain that there is no need to perform hatafat dam. The reason for this is that the mitzvah of brit milah applies only to males who have a foreskin. It follows that even if the foreskin was removed in a manner that does not fulfill the requirements of brit milah, there is nevertheless no obligation to take any further action.29

Circumstances When a Brit Need Not Be Performed on the Eighth Day

The Talmud and halachic codes discuss a number of cases where circumcision might take place either before or after the eighth day:

1. The case of a child whose birth doesn’t render his mother ritually impure—for example, the product of a caesarean birth

The Talmud records a dispute between Rav Asi and Abaye. Rav Asi points out that the verse in Tazria stating that circumcision is performed on the eighth day comes immediately after the verse discussing a women’s ritual impurity incurred as a result of childbirth. Accordingly, he argues, the stipulation that the circumcision should take place on the eighth day applies only in a normal case, where the mother becomes ritually impure. In the case of a caesarean birth, however, the mother is not necessarily rendered impure, and accordingly the circumcision should be performed immediately after the child is born. Abaye argues, saying that the earlier generations before the giving of the Torah serve as a proof to the contrary. In those generations there was no concept of ritual impurity, and yet Abraham was still obligated to circumcise his son on the eighth day.30

This dispute remains unresolved, and therefore even a boy born by C-section is circumcised on the eighth day after his birth.31 Yet Rav Asi’s opinion is taken into account, and continues to have practical ramifications with regards to the question of whether the brit can be held on Shabbat, as we will see below.

2. A child who is ill or weak does not get circumcised on the eighth day, so as not to risk endangering his life. This is rooted in the general principle that, with very few exceptions, preservation of human life always takes precedence over performance of a mitzvah.32 The Talmud and halachic codes differentiate between an illness that affects only one of the child’s limbs and an illness that affects the whole body. In the former case, the brit can take place as soon as he is healed from his illness. In the latter case, the brit is not performed until a complete week has passed after the child has healed.33

Both of these cases, where the brit might be performed before or after the eighth day, are termed milah shelo bizmanah, circumcision that is not performed at its set time. This is in contrast to the normative situation of milah bizmanah, circumcision performed at its set time, on the eighth day. One important difference between milah shelo bizmanah and milah bizmanah arises when the day of the brit coincides with Shabbat or Yom Tov (a biblically prescribed Jewish holiday). In the normative case, if the eighth day is a Shabbat, the brit is held on Shabbat. But in both cases described above, that of a caesarean birth and that of a child who was ill, the brit may not be performed on Shabbat.

The rationale for this is as follows: As mentioned earlier in the article, the Talmud derives the law that a brit can be performed on Shabbat from the reiteration in Parshat Tazria that “on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” Since this verse specifies the eighth day, it follows that the license to perform the brit on Shabbat applies only in the case of a brit that is taking place on the eighth day.34 In the case of a caesarean birth, there is an additional twist. Although we mentioned above that practically speaking such a child is circumcised on the eighth day, this ruling is the result of an undecided dispute. According to Rav Asi the brit should have been held on the very day of the child's birth, and it is only out of deference to Abaye’s opinion that we wait until the eighth day. Accordingly, when the eighth day is Shabbat, we must still take Rav Asi’s opinion into account, and treat this as a milah shelo bizmanah that cannot be held on Shabbat. Instead we must wait until the earliest day that would satisfy both opinions, namely Sunday.35

Similarly, a child born during the twilight period on Friday afternoon—after sunset and before the onset of full night—must also have his brit milah delayed till Sunday. Since it considered to be unclear whether Friday or Shabbat is the eighth day, we must wait until the earliest day that would satisfy both possibilities.36

Who Is Obligated by This Commandment?

Brit milah is listed among the obligations that a father has in regard to his son. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, this is derived from the very fact that the verse specifies that the circumcision must be performed on the eighth day after birth.37 Since a child cannot be placed under any obligation at such a young age, it must be the child’s father who is obligated.38 According to the Babylonian Talmud, this is derived from the example of Abraham, who circumcised his son Isaac at eight days of age. The Talmud goes on to specify others who are secondarily obligated by this commandment: “In a case where he wasn’t circumcised by his father, the judiciary [as representatives of the community] are obligated to circumcise him. . . . In a case where he wasn’t circumcised by the judiciary, he is obligated to circumcise himself.”39 It should be noted, however, that neither the father nor the judiciary incur the punishment of karet if they fail to fulfill their obligation. This punishment is incurred only by the individual who fails to ensure that he is circumcised once he reaches maturity.40

The Talmud also raises the question of whether the child’s mother is obligated, and again refers to the case of Isaac, where the Torah specifies that only Abraham, the father, was commanded, and not Sarah, the mother: “‘G‑d commanded him’41—him and not her.”42

Tosafot43 and other Talmudic commentaries ask why the Talmud needs to cite a verse as the source that the mother is not obligated. Why does the Talmud not simply rely on the general rule that women are exempt from all positive commandments that are time-bound? Brit milah appears to be a time-bound mitzvah, for two reasons: (a) the child is circumcised at the age of eight days old; (b) even after the eighth day, the circumcision can be performed only during the day, not at night.

A number of answers have been offered to resolve this question:

1. Tosafot there addresses point (a) by saying that “since from the eighth day and on the obligation does not cease, it is not a time-bound mitzvah.” Regarding point (b), Tosafot suggests that the Talmud in Kiddushin follows the opinion cited elsewhere in the Talmud that where the circumcision is not being performed on the eighth day (milah shelo bizmanah), it can indeed be performed at night. However, the halachah follows the opinion that circumcision can never be performed at night. Accordingly, brit milah remains a time-bound mitzvah from which women are exempt by default, even absent any specific proof from a biblical verse.

2. Tosafot elsewhere44 notes that we can’t assume that the commandment of circumcision is in the same category as other time-bound positive commandments. This is because brit milah is one of only two positive mitzvahs that carry the severe punishment of karet. This severity might be cause to expand the obligation to include the child’s mother, even though the punishment itself would be incurred only by the uncircumcised individual, as noted above. For this reason, the Talmud must cite a verse as proof that even in the case of brit milah women remain exempt.

The widespread custom is for the obligated party (the father, members of the judiciary, or the mature male who wasn’t circumcised as a child) to appoint a trained mohel as an emissary to perform the circumcision on his behalf. Both the mohel and the father recite a blessing. The mohel makes a blessing ending with the words “who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning circumcision.” The father’s blessing ends with the words “who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to bring him [i.e., the child] into the covenant of Abraham our father.”45

The halachic authorities are divided over the nature of this second blessing that the father makes. Some authorities say that the father recites this blessing since he is fulfilling his own obligation to circumcise his son.46 Others say that his blessing is an independent blessing, not connected to circumcision per se; rather, it signifies that from this day and onwards a father is obligated in a number of obligations towards his son—to circumcise him, redeem him if he is a firstborn, teach him Torah and marry him off.47

A practical ramification might occur in a case where the father serves as the mohel. If we understand the second blessing to refer specifically to circumcision, then it follows that there is no reason for the father to make two blessings. But if it is understood to apply more generally to his obligations to induct his son into the Jewish community, then the father would still recite both blessings even when he serves as the mohel himself.48

Though women are not obligated by the commandment of brit milah, there is a Talmudic opinion, supported by the biblical example of Tzipporah (the wife of Moses),49 that a woman is permitted to perform a circumcision. This is a matter of debate in the Talmud50 and in later commentaries.51 But major halachic authorities such as Maimonides,52 the Shulchan Aruch53 and the Rema54 all rule that a women should perform a brit milah if no man is available to do so.55

What Is the Nature of the Father’s Obligation?

The Minchat Chinuch56 raises the question of whether or not the father’s obligation to circumcise his son applies even after the son comes of age and is personally obligated to circumcise himself. This question, the Minchat Chinuch suggests, hinges upon two different ways that the father’s obligation can be understood:

The first way to understand the father’s obligation is that he is merely a stand-in for his infant son who is as yet too young to be obligated by any commandment. This can be characterized as an “indirect obligation.” Accordingly, once the child comes of age and is personally obligated to circumcise himself, it is logical to assume that the father’s obligation falls away. A second way to understand this is that the father is not merely a stand-in for the son; rather, the father has an autonomous obligation to circumcise his son that is altogether distinct from the obligation that the son will later incur when he comes of age. This can be characterized as a “direct obligation.” If this is the case, then it would follow that the father would always remain obligated in the mitzvah to circumcise his son, even though the son is now of age and personally obligated as well.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests that this is may in fact be a matter of dispute between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. As mentioned above, they each cite different verses as the source for the father’s obligation, and these different verses have different implications:

The Jerusalem Talmud cites the verse in Parshat Tazria, “On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” The father is not mentioned explicitly, but it is understood by inference that since it is impossible for the child to circumcise himself, the obligation must fall on the father. Accordingly, the father’s obligation can be understood as being incurred only so long as the son is not old enough to take on the obligation himself. Once the son does become capable and obligated to circumcise himself, the father’s “indirect” and temporary obligation falls away.

The Babylonian Talmud, in contrast, derives the father’s obligation from the verse which states, “Abraham circumcised Isaac his son, as G‑d commanded him.” The command was given “directly” to Abraham, the father. This implies that the father is independently obligated to circumcise his son, and is not merely a temporary stand-in until the son comes of age. Once the son comes of age, the son too becomes obligated to circumcise himself. The father’s obligation and the son’s obligation now stand alongside one another and are independent of one another.57

Earlier we cited the opinion of Tosafot in tractate Kiddushin that the passage of the Babylonian Talmud under discussion assumes that brit milah is not considered to be a time-bound mitzvah.58 Minchat Chinuch deduces from this that Tosafot must also be of the opinion that a father’s obligation does not stop when his child comes of age, and that it is a “direct” obligation: if the father’s obligation would end at that point, then it should still be considered a time-bound positive commandment, from which women would be exempt by default.

On the other hand, the Minchat Chinuch cites the implication of Maimonides that a father is obligated to circumcise only his young children, and not those who have reached maturity and become obligated in their own right.59 The Minchat Chinuch does not make any mention of the fact that Maimonides, in his commentary to the Mishnah,60 explicitly writes that once the child becomes thirteen, all other people become exempt from their obligations (on his behalf), which implies that he understood the obligation to be “indirect,” and primarily the child’s obligation.

We have mentioned above that while the person who fails to circumcise himself receives the punishment of karet, the father or the judiciary are not liable in the same way. Rabbi Asher Weiss, a contemporary authority, points out that this distinction is readily understandable if we assume that the father and the judiciary are obligated in this commandment only “indirectly,” as temporary stand-ins for the child, who will assume full responsibility for this mitzvah as soon as he comes of age.61

Why Is Brit Milah Performed at Such a Young Age?

Unique to the mitzvah of brit milah is that it is performed when the child is a mere eight days old. When it comes to other mitzvot, one is biblically obligated only at thirteen years of age (twelve for a girl); even the rabbinic obligation to observe mitzvot applies only when a child is old enough to understand the significance of the mitzvot. Why is milah different?

The Midrash records a argument which took place between the patriarch Yitzchak and his (half-)brother Yishmael. Yishmael argued that he was more favored by G‑d, since he had his brit when he was thirteen years old; Yitzchak argued that he was more favored, since he had his brit when he was eight days old. The Midrash itself explains that Yishmael reasoned that he could have protested and refused to be circumcised, yet nevertheless readily performed the mitzvah. However, the commentaries struggle to understand the reasoning of Yitzchak.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that a circumcision which takes place at a later age depends on the individual’s personal understanding, willingness and commitment to G‑d. As such, the connection with G‑d that is achieved through this mitzvah is fundamentally limited and subject to change. However a brit that takes place at a very young age is not constrained by any human conception. It is therefore an absolute bond with G‑d, an essential and eternal bond that is not subject to change, in accord with the words of the verse “And My covenant shall be on your flesh as an eternal covenant.”